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Bogut Coming Around...?

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Bogut threw it down on Boozer last night

Following 29/11 and 23/10 outbursts against the Suns and Jazz, respectively, Andrew Bogut's January averages have risen to 18.0 ppg and 9.9 rpg on .625 shooting from the field and .648 from the line (ed: tack on last night's 21/10 outing against the Hawks and he's now up to 18.3/9.9). Not astounding numbers for a former number one overall pick in his third year of NBA basketball, but if you've been following the Bucks you know how significant that is. Granted, Bogut also logged back-to-back 20/10 outings against Memphis and Atlanta in November, but he wasn't showing quite the same confidence and post assertiveness, instead relying more on moving off the ball and letting Mo Williams get him the ball in great positions. Sure enough, teams adjusted and by December he was back in the doldrums. He still doesn't have a consistent jumper and his free throw shooting hasn't exactly found the light, but Bogut's a guy who seemingly needs confidence from teammates, coaches and himself to play well, and at least for the moment he's getting all of those.

"We're certainly going to do that," Krystkowiak said. "I think what's gone on in the past is we've have a couple of sets that throw it to Andrew and he hasn't been productive and we've kind of stopped. I think from a coach's perspective, you have to have confidence in your big guy and that's what I'm doing is instilling that in him, that we're going to keep coming at you.

"We're looking to get him the ball inside and telling the other four guys, 'Look, take a peek at him in there.' It can be real effective. I don't think you can be a good team or a playoff team without having a serious post threat. And hopefully the rest of our shooters can fill in the gaps and we can become more productively offensively."

Will it last? Consistency has always been a question mark with Bogut, but he's never put together a full month even close to what he's shown in the past two weeks. Last year Bogut averaged 12.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg, but look at his splits: he never averaged more than 12.8 ppg or 9.6 rpg in a month. Go back to his rookie season and it's a similar story, with Bogut never posting monthly averages of greater than 12.7 ppg or 8.8 rpg. On the one hand, the lack of extended periods of high-level play are indicative of a solid young player who perhaps doesn't have the tools to be a true star, but he's also never gotten much of a chance to be an offensive focal point--his 12.0 fga/game this month are the first time he's ever averaged more than 10.7 in a month, and he's never shot below 50% in months he's averaged double-digit attempts. Still, it'd be deceptive to paint Bogut merely as a victim of his teammates' selfishness. When he's struggled with his touch offensively, Bogut's often fallen into the trap of shying away from the ball, something we saw just last month when he scored 11.1 ppg on sub-50% shooting from both the field and the line. It's not really in Bogut's nature to force shots, as he seems self-conscious of becoming THAT guy, but standing 20 feet from the hoop and looking for cutters isn't the best use of him, either.

Without consistency from the line or a 10-15 foot jumper, Bogut's game will always have built-in limitations, as even with his added bulk he won't be able to back down and shoot over Carlos Boozer every night. Last night we saw the Jazz adjust a bit as the game went on, forcing some turnovers by looking to rip Bogut early rather than let him get shots over top of them. As a post player he'll always be dependent on teammates getting him the ball, and if he keeps up his current pace he'll have to make further adjustments when teams begin to double him more regularly. His shot-blocking has tailed off somewhat from earlier in the season, perhaps a reflection of the extra energy he's expending on offense, but he's still blocking shots at triple the rate of last season (1.66 vs. 0.53 bpg). Meanwhile, his rebound rate (16.0) is only 25th among 55 qualifying players at the center position, but up from 15.2 last year and 14.5 as a rookie.

Where to now?

Bogut might not be a top six center, but given how long the Bucks went with Daniel Santiago and Benoit Benjamin-types roaming the middle, it's kind of nice to have a 23-year old center capable of scoring, rebounding and even defending a bit. Yi Jianlian similarly has a way to go before he delivers on the potential he's shown as a rookie, but the Bucks should feel fortunate to at least have some promise at the starting big spots. For that reason you can understand why the Bucks might pass on the Knicks' reported offer of Zach Randolph and Renaldo Balkman for Charlie Villanueva, Bobby Simmons and Dan Gadzuric. On the surface it seems kind of ridiculous--passing on a guy like Randolph who's averaged 17/10 in a down year for a mercurial PF and two bad contracts. But Yi's future isn't at small forward, nor do the Bucks have the sort of stabilizing leader (Garnett, Nash come to mind) that could hope to bring Randolph in line.  He's a talented but mostly black hole-ish offensive player, and even a good attitude isn't likely to turn him into a great team player or even a mediocre defender. There's no long term fit, so what's the point?

With this season unlikely to result in anything better than a valiant run at the eight spot in the East, the Bucks have to look at any major deal through the lens of longer term  chemistry, cap flexibility and the development of Yi and Bogut. Yi needs to improve his ball-handling and add a shot-creating element to his more perimeter-oriented game, but overall he meshes well with Bogut's more bruising, low-block style. Isiah Thomas has made a habit of acquiring guys with nice stats who don't seem to win games, and it's taken him about three months to realize that his Randolph/Eddy Curry pairing doesn't work outside video games and fantasy drafts. There's nothing to suggest the Bucks wouldn't reach a similar conclusion.

Still, the Bucks' improved play of late--heck, they've been downright competitive against some of the West's best--has perhaps lulled the front office into inaction, which Marc Stein points out is consistent with Herb Kohl's style in recent years.

You have to remember who owns the Bucks. If you've followed Sen. Herb Kohl at all over the years, you know he doesn't do shake-ups. He's not one of the league's more decisive, proactive owners. So change will almost certainly be gradual.

You're also starting to hear some of the locals lose patience with my man Redd, questioning whether his game will ever be sufficiently well-rounded to lead the Bucks to prominence. Even a loyalist like me has to concede that the lovable lefty must be a better defender and passer to justify his max-money deal, but I would be stunned if Milwaukee actually disassembled its Redd-Yi Jianlian-Andrew Bogut core between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline. Stunned.

We repeat: Kohl doesn't move that fast. Which must be why I heard this week that the Bucks won't seriously explore the prospect of shopping Redd before the offseason.

The Bucks seemed to hit their low point in the 45-point loss in Detroit on New Year's Eve, then laid an egg in their blowout home loss to the Wizards a few days later. That Kohl didn't dump Larry Harris at that point speaks to the lack of decisiveness Stein mentions (Kohl might have understandably been busy with his significant political obligations as well). Last year's mid-season firing of Terry Stotts had a lot to do with preventing Larry Krystkowiak from returning to the collegiate coaching ranks, and in recent years the Bucks have made all their major personnel moves during the offseason; not since the Ray Allen for Gary Payton/Desmond Mason deal has Kohl given the OK on a major midseason move (Am I overlooking anything involving Keith Van Horn? Um, yes).

With Harris as the obvious fall guy for another Bucks' playoff miss, Stein's prediction seems to mesh with what we have (or have not) seen from the Bucks in the past couple weeks. Kohl has been reportedly trying to line up Doug Collins (again) or Rick Sund to take over the front office role, but so long as Harris is around there's no reason to expect the Bucks will do anything drastic. After all, why allow your outgoing GM to make any franchise-defining moves? At this point Bucks fans could justifiably ask whether Kohl and his much-talked about inner circle deserve more of the blame for the team's spell of mediocrity, but owners are far less practical scapegoats than GMs with expiring contracts.

Unfortunately, the Bucks are relatively short on trade chips, so even if Kohl allows Harris to make a minor move--finding a low-rent swingman like Mickael Pietrus or Damien Wilkins would have been nice about a month ago--it might require moving a player the Bucks would prefer to use if/when they make more major changes in the summer. Charlie Villanueva is the most obvious piece for the Bucks to move, but beyond that no one else is expendable, somewhat talented, and reasonably priced. Jake Voskuhl's $3 million expiring salary would be helpful in making a deal work with the cap, but no one would give up anything of real value for his services (but we still love you, Jake). The Bucks would also be well-served to hang onto their 2008 first rounder rather than parlay it into a short-term fix, though they could also apply some protections to minimize their risk if they do want to make a deal. There might be some big names available at the deadline, but it's not clear the Bucks will be very active come February 22.

Patience has been an unfortunately bitter pill for Bucks fans to swallow over the years, but it's very likely to be the medicine of choice for the rest of the 07/08 season. In the meantime, keep an eye on the subtle power struggle between Redd, Bogut and (to a lesser extent) Mo Williams. Unless Redd finds a way to balance his scoring instinct with a more balanced team approach, the hope of all three plying their trade in Milwaukee beyond 2008 will prove increasingly difficult to reconcile with the team's longer term ability to contend in the East.